All about vigilantism, and moral policing

A vigilante is an individual or a member of a group that takes law into their own hands and takes action.

Published: 15th August 2016 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 14th August 2016 02:57 PM   |  A+A-

During the past two weeks, the terms ‘cow vigilante’ and ‘cow vigilantism’, were predominantly used by the media in India. There were many news reports on ‘cow vigilantes’ and debates on this topic on the television. This has prompted a reader to write to me with this request, it will be beneficial to the readers of your column if you can discuss the words ‘vigilantism’ and ‘vigilante’ in your column.

As an active user of the social media tools Twitter and Facebook, I too have tweeted about ‘cow vigilantism’ with the hashtag #CowVigilantes and posted my comments on Facebook on Prime Minister Modi’s remark on cow vigilantes. 

A vigilante is an individual or a member of a group that takes law into their own hands and takes action against someone who violates a law and commits a crime. Vigilantism is an extra-judicial punishment given by an individual or persons belonging to a self-appointed group, called vigilante group. What is the origin of the word ‘vigilante’?  The Spanish term vigilante literally means “watchman”.  It originates from the Latin vigilantem which means watchful, anxious, careful.

Cow vigilantes are self-styled cow protectors who take law into their own hands and attack those who slaughtered or are suspected to have slaughtered cows. In many states of India, cow slaughter is illegal. Of late, there have been many incidents of cow-slaughter-related violence in India.    Below are examples of how the terms are used in sentences:

What made the Prime Minister break his silence on cow vigilantes?

PM Modi’s criticism of cow vigilantism has been criticized by some critics.

The two terms that are closely associated with the term ‘vigilantism’ are ‘moral policing’ and ‘lynching’.  I have discussed these term ‘lynching’ in one of these columns in a detailed manner.  Lynching is a killing of someone for an alleged offence without a legal trial. Almost a year ago, a 50-year-old man, Mohammad Akhlaq, was lynched in Bisara village near Dadri, for the alleged offence of his family consuming and storing beef.  The case, known as Dadri mob lynching, drew the attention of the international community and was strongly condemned.   Here are examples of how the words ‘lynch’ and ‘lynching’ are used in sentences:

Many politicians visited the Dadri lynch victim’s family.

We staged a protest denouncing the lynching of a Muslim farmer. 

‘Moral policing’ is a term that is used to describe vigilante groups that try to enforce a code of morality in India.   The targets of the moral police are people involved in activities that are considered immoral by vigilante groups.  There have been many instances of moral policing in India as it has increasingly become common in India.

Many young people face the brunt of the moral police on Valentine’s Day.

What should we do to stop moral policing by Hindu outfits on India?

The terms ‘cow vigilante’ and ‘cow vigilantism’ might soon be added to the English dictionary.


Dr Albert P’ Rayan is an ELT Resource Person and Professor of English. He can be contacted at

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